The 50 Best Movies of 2013

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40. Stranger Things

Directors: Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal
Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal’s directorial debut plays like slow, somber ballad. Loss is the central theme, and a certain inevitable loneliness permeates through the story, as it tells of the unlikely friendship between a grieving woman, Oona (played by Bridget Collins) and a homeless man, Mani (played by Adeel Akhtar). As Oona attempts to sell her childhood home following the death of her mother, she must sift through her mother’s belongings and memories from her own past. She interviews neighbors and friends to get a sense of the person her mother was, and viewers witness the life and death of this mother/daughter relationship right along with the main character. The post-mortem aspect contributes to that feeling of inevitable loss, and Oona and Mani’s friendship presents a welcome complication. Burke and Eyal appear to keep a safe distance from their own movie, almost as if they are filming a documentary. This approach inspires a natural feeling in the presentation, but also weakens the movement of the plot a bit. Stranger Things tells a powerful story, although it could have benefited from the presence of a slightly heavier director’s hand.—Shannon Houston

39. The Crash Reel

Director: Lucy Walker
From the sanguinary fisticuffs that adorn the average hockey game to the sundry concussions at the heart (or head) of American football, sports are not generally enjoyed for their deference to safety and moderation. But if sports already flirt with the unduly perilous—if they encourage and reward the liberation of teeth, the tearing of cartilage, the cleaving of bone—what could possibly constitute an extreme sport, besides more peril? Well, as Lucy Walker’s new documentary The Crash Reel inadvertently illustrates, it seems that an extreme sport is any activity at which you can become so talented that you risk killing yourself doing it. This is because in extreme sports, unlike other pastimes, danger is commensurate to skill. The parkour pro, negotiating ever more precarious skylines, risks a slip that could shatter a skull. The expert rock climber, scaling mountains of unprecedented altitude, is only a misstep away from the plummet. The rest of us needn’t worry: an amateur simply can’t muster much risk.—Calum Marsh (review here)

38. A Hijacking

Director: Tobias Lindholm
A Hijacking delivers all the thrills the title suggests, but in none of the places you’d expect them. Even the hijacking—the most obvious candidate for a set piece—happens off-camera. The movie depicts a volatile situation that could go wrong at any moment. A single misstep could cost people their lives. This creates a psychological strain not only on the prisoners, but on the people trying to free them. Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm has crafted the movie in a straight-forward manner that lays out the scenario and lets the emotions come forth on their own.—Jeremy Mathews (review here)

37. Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Despite some feel-good conventionality, Dallas Buyers Club succeeds thanks to its pragmatic view of its rather pragmatic hero. Inspired by true events, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, who in the mid-1980s was living in Dallas and happily screwing every woman in town when a trip to the doctor uncovered that he was HIV-positive. A man’s man—in other words, a small-minded homophobe—Woodroof initially refuses to believe the diagnosis since he’s not gay, but after being told he has about 30 days to live, he focuses his energy on seeking out drugs that can help him survive. You walk away from Dallas Buyers Club not so much moved by the larger issues as you are by the simple, odd friendship forged by Woodroof and Rayon. These two accidental crusaders are heroes precisely because they never set out to be—they just wanted to stay alive.—Tim Grierson (review here)

36. Gimme the Loot

Director: Adam Leon
An astoundingly spirited debut from director Adam Leon, Gimme the Loot keeps a youthful faith in the endless possibilities of the future. But the movie also stays grounded in the realities of struggling, up-and-coming artists. It’s human and hopeful, never letting the tone get too cynical or bitter. Leon’s film embeds a mature friendship in the story of two teen graffiti artists trying to pull off the biggest graffiti tag in the Bronx. Much more grownup than it looks, Gimme the Loot is that rare teen-centric film whose brisk pace is unburdened by sentimentality.—Monica Castillo (review here)

35. No

Director: Pablo Larraín
It’s a strange notion that happiness can be packaged and bought like a bottle of ketchup. But in order for Chileans to overthrow their dictatorship in a 1988 election, this is what had to happen—enough citizens had to buy into the idea of a future state of happiness. And, as is the case for most products, happiness had to be advertised. Pablo Larrain’s fourth film and third installment of his trilogy about Chile’s dictatorship, No tells the story of how an advertising campaign for happiness overthrew 15 years of tyrannical rule. The creation of a future that seems both utopian yet attainable takes a puissant, invisible hand to orchestrate. Lucky for us, and thanks to Larrain, that hand is now not so invisible.—Gabrielle Lipton (review here)

34. Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne
The first question at the Cannes press conference for Nebraska, the new film from Alexander Payne, was about why the director decided to shoot his comedy-drama in black and white. It’s an understandable query. Studios don’t like black-and-white movies from a commercial perspective and, because Payne’s films emphasize character and dialogue, they’re not necessarily thought of as being grandly cinematic, which might require such a striking look. But after seeing the film, the choice makes more than a little sense. Payne doesn’t use black and white to make his movie grand. Quite the contrary, he uses the lack of color to illustrate his characters’ tiny, quiet existence. To paraphrase a line from Paul Simon, their lives are so common they practically disappear.—Tim Grierson (review here)

33. Short Term 12

Director: Destin Cretton
As it progresses, Short Term 12 remains rigorously structured in terms of plot; yet it never feels calculated. In fact, the film serves as a fine example of how invisible screenwriting can be. By allowing his characters’ irrational emotions to influence events and instigate key turning points, Cretton capably masks the film’s finely calibrated story mechanics. And while everything seemingly comes to a head during a key crisis, it’s only fitting that the story ends with a denouement that bookends its opening. Cretton’s clear-eyed film is far too honest to try and convince us that there’s been any sort of profound change for Grace or anyone else. Instead, it’s content to serve as a potent reminder that tentative first steps can be every bit as narratively compelling as great leaps of faith.—Curtis Woloschuk (review here)

32. Afternoon Delight

Director: Jill Soloway
Audiences and critics alike were split over Soloway’s Afternoon Delight. Even our own Jeremy Mathews found the shifts in tone disconcerting, calling it half sitcom, half Cassavetes film. But that’s part of what I liked about the film. The moments of levity (many from the strong lead performance of Kathryn Hahn) lightened what could have been a ponderous, oppressive film. Josh Radnor’s intense turn, for example, might have been overbearing in a more serious film. And Juno Temple’s stripper might have seemed a little too daft and unsubstantial for a light comedy. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, of course, but for my money Jill Soloway pulls it off neatly.—Michael Dunaway (review here)

31. The Unspeakable Act

Director: Dan Sallitt
Dan Sallitt’s third feature film delves into the subject of incest, a topic that remains taboo even in the indie film industry where few issues are off-limits. Although An Unspeakable Act suffers from some heavy-handed narration (often telling more when it should show), it tells the fascinating story of Jackie (played by Tallie Medel), a young woman in love with her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). The tone of the film is akin to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, where matter-or-fact, stripped-down dialogue and imagery is employed throughout a rather intense narrative (one which also attempts to paint a portrait of a very particular suburban lifestyle). Jackie walks viewers through her feelings about her brother, which are presented in a fascinating way—she is an intelligent, aware and creative being who also happens to be in love with a member of her family. A portrait of forbidden love, An Unspeakable Act also offers insight into young, female sexuality from varying perspectives, where it is all things ranging from empowering, cliche and complicated, and is sometimes presented by the lead protagonist as if the act itself has little or no meaning at all. This unique (even troubling) approach to the traditional story of young love makes the story in An Unspeakable Act exciting, even if the overall execution is sometimes flawed.